I will admit that I am still unsure of how to treat this subject, yet I feel I need to at least say something on the issue. When I first arrived in Bali there were three issues I didn’t think I could get over : the chaotic driving conditions (I though I would die on my way to my guesthouse), the garbage littering beaches and fields (while I still think it’s a shame, I learned to overlook them) and the excruciating heat (well, excruciating from my point of view). Yet, I eventually did get over my shock, only to uncover another issue, one I didn’t think I could get over because it saddened me to the very core.
Bali, the country known as a little hidden paradise of spirituality seems to be selling its temples as cheap (or not so cheap) attractions to tourists. As a traveler, I was eager to set foot in the temples armed with my sari. I know my etiquette and I was ready to be polite, silent and reverent. Nothing quite prepared me for the amusement park feeling you get. – I was deeply shocked.
While I don’t exactly agree with charging entrance fees for foreigners, I can understand the practice. It didn’t stop there however, the biggest temples had souvenir shops and food stalls set up at the door. I could understand the sari shops, as saris are obligatory for women in Balinese temples, and it seemed appropriate to be selling them to tourists who didn’t know better and sought entrance into the temples. However, I wasn’t prepared for a full blown tourist market. I mentioned this to a Balinese, whose response was “What can you do, it’s a good way to make money and foreigners have a lot of money”.
I can’t say I know enough about the situation in Bali to judge. And in the grand scheme of things, tourist markets at temples doors can be excused. The problem is that it doesn’t stop there. The vendors are also inside, trying to sell their wares in the enclosure of the holy places. I can’t shake the feeling that this is insulting to the Balinese culture and holy places.
On another occasion, a priest came to talk to me. Our conversation lasted for a maximum of 15 minutes and had nothing I would consider enlightening. He didn’t mention the gods or the significance of different architectural designs. He didn’t go into the belief system at all. The only thing I learned was that the place had been newly renovated and that the black and white checkered flags represented balance. He then proceeded to ask me to pay him a guide fee of 20 American dollars and to be on my way. He literally pushed me out of the temple ground.
I was insulted and confused at the same time by this treatment. I’m not a religious person, but I’m still genuinely interested in religions. I can’t help, but ask what is this, a priest that doesn’t want to talk about religion?
I think this will be a problem as long as foreigners are seen as walking money. Some white person coming from the other side of the world, good for its money and nothing else. This might make it easy to think there can be no connection?
Yet, we are not so different. In fact, it seems at the very core we are all striving for the same things: security, health, a sense of belonging and happiness. If you look past our differences, we have a lot in common.
Tourism can be a great thing for the finances of a country, but when the finance aspect of it is all that is taken into consideration, it can become abusive. It can destroy cultural treasures. I wish that the Balinese population would realize that their temples are holy places before being tourist attractions – I say this both thinking of disrespectful tourists and opportunistic locals. I think greater protection should be enforced in temples to protect them against cultural desecration. Not one of the gorgeous Balinese temples deserves to be transformed in a thematic amusement park as a mean to boost local economy.